Novels of Neil Gunn – Pt. 8

The War Years And The Uses of Positivity

Neil Gunn did not serve in the forces in either World War. For WWI he was of an age to serve but duties as a Civil Servant stopped him going to the front. Instead he worked routing shipping around minefields and away from the Minch, where German submarines lurked. (Deepening his knowledge of the seas around his homeland and adding to the star of understanding he already that would later be used in The Silver darlings, his great novel about the fishing industry in the early nineteenth century). In WWII he was too old and struggled about what he should do. Should he try to help the war effort directly by going back to some sort of administrative work?  His thinking is shown from a diary entry in September 1939:

Again I feel that if I went back to work, I should probably stop writing. To a man of my age, this war is going to be a critical period. It will be a period during which anything creative will have every chance of being quietly smothered.
Not that I expect anything much from myself. But in these last two years or so I have been increasingly conscious of certain qualities like light and happiness, conscious of them in a triple aspect – personal, philosophic, and artistic. I might, if left to myself to ponder on them, manage to produce or reproduce them in writing. I know that if I could do this, it would be a vastly greater service to some of my fellows than would any routine clerical job in a service department. I am convinced, further, that writers will have to do something like this, in the first place to save the integrity of the individual threatened “by the tyranny of the mass or collective- mass, and in the second, to revitalise the core of life itself in each individual. These are vague words, but I know what I mean…
“¹

He didn’t fully convince himself and applied to rejoin Customs and Excise but alhough it was only two years since he had left, he was rejected.  The decision was made for him. He had to make his personal contribution through his writing and to do this he would aim to show the value of positivity and the potential of virtuous individualism. He had been on a journey away from ideologies and isms and long gone were the days when he called himself a socialist and his conviction that things should be viewed from the point of view of the individual grew as he grew older. The war starkly showed where ideologies could lead. As he put it in his journal on 3rd September 1939:

“The inarticulate gloom in that farm kitchen. The woman I can now see (as if I had known her for centuries) in her croft cottage, her man gone. Behind all the calculations of intellect, behind the megalomania of a leader, behind the religion of an economic system, there is that individual who suffers, who dies, who loves. When we forget to pay tribute, above all things, to the living core and flame of the individual life, at that moment we are heading for the organisation of death.”²

Or as he put it in a letter to John MacCormick in December 1939: 

“The forces of the world seem slowly to be aligning themselves into two groups: those who wish to retain man’s freedom to express whatever integrity may be in him and those who don’t. This freedom of expression is to me supremely important, and I am prepared to align myself and fight accordingly.”³ 

We should read the novels he wrote during the war with this in mind as well as something he mentioned in the earlier quoted journal entry: his feeling of “light and happiness”. 

He had become a full time writer only two years before the start of the war and was coming into his own into his new life so the fear that his artistic career would be damaged if did his bit by working in the Civil Service was real. Nevertheless he couldn’t lock himself away in his study, had to do something. He thus volunteered for the Home Guard. As well as this he used his administrative and analytical abilities by serving on Commission, which between 1942 and 43 worked on problems of post war hospital provision in Scotland. There was also journalism, under the pseudonym of Dane McNeill, looking  at the political and economic state of Scotland. In this way he could directly attack the questions of what should be done. In his novels he could address issues indirectly, more imaginatively. There was an audience for this. During the war, art, music, and literature was devoured with intensity.

Journalism and novel writing were not, though, unrelated, they could feed into each other. His journalism led him to further research the fishing industry and The Silver Darlings – a book he had been running from  for some years – became an eventuality. Herring fishing in the early part of the nineteenth century might not address directly the contemporary concerns of a war against Fascism but it spoke of something deeper. It shows the roots of a people and the heroism that made them. In times of war reminders of where you come from and the better parts of our nature are profoundly important.

The works he published during WWII were Second Sight (1940), The Silver Darlings (1941), Young Art & Old Hector (1942), The Serpent (1943), The Green Isle of the Great Deep (1944). Apart from Second Sight (general rule: novels featuring Englishmen are his weakest) this is Gunn at his peak and each of these novels sits in a different part of his classification and show he was exploring his range.  

  1. Second Sight  –    The”locality” of the Highlands as a state of mind
  2. The Silver Darlings – The Highlands as History
  3. Young Art & Old Hector – The wisdom of boyhood
  4. The Serpent – Escapism validated
  5. The Green Isle of the Great Deep –  The Murderousness of the Modem World.

I am going to ignore Second Sight because it was a reworking of an earlier, failed play and more of an exercise in tidying up something on his desk, rather than anything fresh. It could be argued that Wild Geese Overhead, with its story of the darkness of Glasgow slums, arguments about socialism and social conditions and personal healing away from the city, was far more attuned to the anxiety of the times than Second Sight. As it was published in 1939, it could almost included as part of his wartime output but that would be stretching things and, like Gunn himself, we have to be very careful with our facts.

In previous posts I have written a little about The Silver Darlings and Young Art & Old Hector, so I won’t dwell on them here, but the other two novels are well worth looking at. The Green Isle of the Great Deep stands out because it was the only one that was in any sense topical (even though it is a fable set in an imaginary landscape), as it was a direct response to the political/ideological forces that led to the mess the world was in.  On one level it is a follow.-up to the bucolic Young Art & Old Hector. That book had ended with the promise that Hector would take Art to the river and this is where the new book begins. However the effort to catch the salmon ends in disaster as they fall into the pool. In the moment of drowning the two heroes discover they have passed into a beautiful Gaelic paradise, except that everything is a bit off. The lived experience does not seem to offer the personal fulfilment that would be expected in a real paradise. Everything is under the control of the administration and everybody is compliant. Gunn always had a keen, sensuous enjoyment of food, that comes out somewhere in most of his novels, and so it’s not surprising that one of the signifiers that this world has gone bad is what they have to eat. Although there is plentiful fresh fruit growing on trees, the people can only eat gloopy mass produced porridge. Art as a free, young boy has an instinctive understanding that things are wrong and he keeps trying to escape and his fleet running gains him an almost mythological status. Hector, with his age and his Gaelic wisdom has weariness and a strain of acquiescence within him (and here there is an implied criticism that goes back to the time of the Clearances and the way the people accepted far too much) but he still has his own heroism. The brainwashing techniques of the administration and the elevation of efficiency above any other quality were based on what had been used in both Russia and Germany. Like Brave New World and 1984 it is a dystopian novel about being trapped in an all encompassing system with no scope for individuality and personal development. The difference between them is that Gunn gives us a happy ending. Both Art and Hector are delivered back to the pool in the river, beside them on the bank was a huge brilliant salmon and some hazelnuts. And we are right back to the very beginning with the salmon with the knowledge of the world.

This is a direct response to the times, a warning about the type of world that must be resisted and a reminder of the qualities of life which needed to be defended. The world he wanted to see was rooted in his romantic vision of old Gaelic society and the idea of communality. Each person was in charge of his own holding and could own things and prosper in their own right but there was also the sharing of big tasks and the helping out of neighbours. He felt it important to write stories which embodied these virtues, and showed what life could be.

Not everything could be idyllic though. During his lifetime the Highlands were a depressed area and some social ideas acted against his vision how things could be. In The Serpent the hero, Tom, has to battle with an extremely rigid,  fundamentalist religion, which has a tight grip on the attitudes and behaviour of his community. It denies him the freedom to hold the secular ideas he discovered during his time as an apprentice in Glasgow and is very suspicious of his wide reading. Tom has to go through a great period of darkness to emerge as a “philosopher”, a man at one with his life.

The book starts with him walking in the hills, looking down on his village and remembering his past. Each chapter is prefaced with a description of his emotional response  to the incidents later described. The story is of his life and his struggle to find fulfilment.  As a youth he went to earn his living in Glasgow where he not only became a craftsman he  learnt about socialism and related philosophies and became an atheist, or perhaps more accurately a Christian sceptic. His life there could have been fulfilling but his father had a heart attack and could no longer manage the the croft and so Tom had to return to help.

At first he resented the idea but he found satisfaction in the work and helping others. He used his skills and set up a workshop but his main problem is his his relationship with his father. As an invalid  he had retreated into himself and become both bitter and an authoritarian.  He used his moral authority to try to impose his harsh, fundamentalist faith on Tom, who is torn between love for his mother and a burdensome sense of duty to his father.

He meets and secretly courts Janet, who has her own problems with a widowed mother who is subject to bouts of mania. Janet is the love of his life but the courtship evolves slowly under the cover of nighttime meetings. Too slowly. He doesn’t declare himself in time and when he conceives his plans for marriage, she is already in the arms of the more dashing Donald, the son of the Manse.

Twisted inside he lets his anger escape in theological debate with  William, a church elder, who is reduced to spluttering rage.  Because of the noise Tom’s father comes to berate his son and beat him with his stick but as he raises his arm he collapses and because of his weak heart dies.

Tom is thus seen as an agent of the devil who caused his father’s death. He is ostracised and in his isolation, guilt, and betrayal by Janet, has a mental breakdown. After wandering the hills and getting thoroughly soaked he becomes seriously ill, with pleurisy that leaves him weak for some time. Although he recovers his spirit is sapped and he gets on with his work disillusioned and shunned.

Then come the news that Janet is pregnant and he guesses Donald is the father. He tries to find him in first Edinburgh then Glasgow but finds he has fled to Canada.. Distraught he returns and walks past Janet’s cottage when her mother is having one of her fits and is attacking Janet with a flat iron. He tries to intervene and is also struck but recovers enough to rush to the doctor, who suspects him either being the attacker or the father of Janet’s baby.  Janet dies but she had previously told Tom’s mother that the father was Donald.  The truth becomes known out and the sympathy of the village returns to Tom.

He is no longer ostracised and continues to develop his business turning from bicycles to motors, and petrol., withy the times. The business flourishes. He still reads philosophy and is reconciled with his life.

He dies quietly sit-ing on a rock in the sun.  An adder slides over his wrist and when the body is found it comes out of his sleeve. It is the Celtic symbol of renewal, or the cycle of life.

The book might end with the old man dying but he does so on sunlight uplands. It is an ending of hope. Of showing a way forward. 

Perhaps as well as being an oblique take on how the Highlands could move forward and develop it also shows the way Neil Gunn saw his role during World War Two – showing that difficulties could be overcome and there were sunlight uplands. 

¹ Quoted in  Burns, John. Celebration of Light: the fiction of Neil Gunn PhD. University of Edinburgh. 1982. pp 84-85

² Quoted in Hart, Francis Russell., and J. B. Pick. Neil M. Gunn : a Highland Life. John Murray, 1981. p164

³ Gunn, Neil M., and J. B. Pick. Selected Letters. Polygon, 1987. p60